Who Needs Civil Society?

Who Needs Civil Society?

Distinctions between public and private have been central to feminist analysis. Distinctions between civil society and the state are far less frequently invoked. Does feminism need a concept of civil society? It certainly does not need what is presented in so much of the historical literature, where civil society figures as a place where women are not. Hegel saw man as having his “substantive life” in the state and civil society, while woman pursued her “substantive destiny” in the family, and this highly gendered understanding of civil society is by no means unique. “Civil” often implies a contrast with natural or familial. “Woman” still suggests an association with nature or family. It is hardly surprising that civil society so often conjures up a masculine realm.

Yet feminists did not stop talking about the state just because so few women exercised political power—if this were the policy, there would be all too many things on which feminists would have to remain silent. The deeper difficulty is that the problems that generate the category of civil society derive from a nonfeminist agenda, and that this remains true even if we leave Hegel behind to concentrate on more recent debates. What makes civil society-state a useful way of dividing up the contemporary world is usually some thesis about the coerciveness of state power or amoral fragmentation of market relations: the idea that democracy depends, for example, on a dense network of voluntary organizations, or that people need forms of association not regulated by either market or state. The key presumption underlying these two is that human relationships are ordered very differently in different parts of our lives: it is because of these differences that we need “more”’ civil society. Feminism, on the whole, has been less inclined to accept this division of spheres.

A feminist looks around the world and sees much the same patterns repeating themselves in every sphere of existence. Same old pattern of dominance, same old pattern of exclusion, same old problems whether in family, market, civil society, or state. Those who describe the family as a unit based on love, or the market as organizing people “behind their backs,” or bureaucracy as the implementation of impartial rules, may well come to regard civil society as more “social” than any of these—less intense than the family, less anonymous than the market, particularly crucial to social cohesion. Those who have trouble with these descriptions are less likely to romanticize civil society or conceive of it as so very distinct from anything else.

The Attractions of Civil Society
One might then say that feminism does well enough without any conception of civil society, but this would be too abrupt. If we take civil society in its characteristically modern meaning—as a way of referring to the terrain of voluntary associations that exist between economy and state—there...